Being Asian, walking the streets of a quaint little backwater Australian town that idolizes shiny steel balls and a nightlife that consists of getting drunk in a variety of faux-European settings, has always been an apprehensive experience.
It is hard to put into words what this experience is like, let alone describe it to those who inexplicably enjoy their nightly traipses along the same exact road, visiting the same exact shops, ordering the same exact decaf soy latte. Objectively, there isn’t that much to complain about. Whatever ethnic group one belongs to, it is easy to have a fun night out, quickly forget about the dozen homeless they’ve passed by, and return home at 7am reasonably satisfied.
That is, until one leaves this bubbled sanctuary and walks the streets of Shanghai, where it is not scantily-clad white girls that roam the streets half-pissed, but hot Asian women. It is difficult, then, to pretend that anyone, no matter how socially lubricated, can belong equally to both places.
Anecdotal evidence suggests it is not easy being a western foreigner in an Asian country. Predatory street-vendors, unnaturally courteous metro assistants, indelible salespersons with unironed shirts and lit cigarettes next to no-smoking signs in a basement store that sells cotton bedding, rude policemen – they flock to non-Asians like empty-skulled 20-something kid-adults flock to memes, trying to legally take your money.
Those confident myths about the ubiquitousness of English is widely overblown; no one speaks English, and even if they do, most will not speak it to you outside a professional setting. And why would they? Come to the country, speak the language – that is what Australians have always maintained. No need to look so confused when they speak Chinese to you in excruciating, childish slowness, oozing condescension – this is what you would’ve done the other way around.
Wherever one goes, any non-Asian skin color is basically a label that reads ‘I’M RICH’ directly above ‘RESPECT ME DAMMIT’, drawing to it all the scammy deals and courteous disrespect one can expect. This labelling has nothing to do with how long one has lived here or how well one can speak the language – it has only to do with skin color.
In casual 2-minute interactions – going to the bank, eating out, getting drunk at a bar, premature ejaculation – who you are, what you are, and what rights and respects are afforded to you are determined according to skin color the moment two people meet.
Again, anecdotal evidence – but then again, no one cares about scientific evidence and opinions are facts.
None of this applies when one is Asian, however. The locals immediately and unconditionally accepts Asians no matter how they dress (four times in a week, women unironically dressed in maid costumes – not for any professional purpose but just casually – have been spotted. Did not take pictures).
It matters not when these camouflaged foreigners can’t speak Chinese, or always get lost the moron-friendly zero-barrier subway system. They rarely get accosted by the various locals, and even if they do, their lack of basic language skill is never met with derision. Somehow, they are spoken to with normal-speed, non-condescending Chinese even though they have the same chance of understanding it as a deaf kookaburra.
This is because these Asian foreigners have already been judged as ‘one of us’, despite them being no less foreign than everyone else. The basis is, of course, appearance alone. Without knowing anything about them, they have been accepted by the locals because they look the same.
Of course, when one is a rational human being with satisfactory intelligence, this sort of judgment rarely applies beyond first-impressions. It’s hard to hold onto one’s prejudice – one way or another – when the Asian guy you thought was a local can’t even use chopsticks and listens to a vaguely homoerotic band called One Direction, whereas the black guy you thought was from Zimbabwe has actually lived here for ten years and speaks fluent Chinese.
But most don’t get past first impressions. People don’t have the time nor the desire to get to know you; most just want your money and be done with it.
Easiest impression to make – the color of one’s skin.
When an Asian guy walks down an Australian street, despite being as local as anyone could get without losing one’s cultural identity, one cannot escape the sense of constantly being judged from a distance, and whatever caricature that impression would form in the observer’s mind, it will not be ‘one of us’.
Which is cool. After all – as we’ve established – this happens the other way around as well.
Even when people, after forming such misconstrued first impressions, are unwilling to close that distance and properly assess the individual for who they are, it is still cool – they just might not give enough shits to get to know you.
Real social ramifications arise when there is time, and there is a structural need to get to know these ‘different’ people, to close that distance, yet due to fear and anxiety of admitting one’s own mistaken prejudices and/or the simple shyness of approaching a stranger, one does not.
Thus, the prejudices remain forever, cementing into caricatures – the defining of an individual with a few easily perceived visual or auditory traits – which then leads, unceremoniously, to racism.
(to be continued, cos 800 words is stretching it for avid readers of the 21st century)